For fans of Stephen King, a quick warning: Despite his latest novel’s title, “Mr. Mercedes,” there are no sentient vehicles hellbent on destruction anywhere to be found, a la his earlier works “Christine” and “From a Buick 8.”
Instead, we’re greeted with a departure from his supernatural themes and given a straightforward thriller that aims for a middle ground between the novels of Thomas Harris and the television show “24.” Unfortunately, despite its full-tilt pace, “Mr. Mercedes” ends up being a rather forgettable imitation of both.
The novel opens with a bang as job-seekers wait in line for a job fair at a local stadium. At dawn, a gray Mercedes appears and lunges into the crowd, killing eight (including a mother and her infant) and wounding 15. The car is found later that day, but the killer is gone.
A year later, one of the detectives assigned to the case, K. William Hodges, is retired and tormented by his failure to catch the man dubbed the “Mercedes Killer.” Hodges receives a typed letter from someone claiming to be the Mercedes Killer, who revels in the terror the murders caused and gleefully taunts Hodges for his failure to catch the perpetrator. He encourages Hodges to consider suicide.
Predictably, Hodges responds to the letter by deciding to catch the killer and solve the case. From there, the book dips into familiar thriller territory by introducing the killer himself, an amalgamation of “Psycho’s” Norman Bates and “American Psycho’s” Patrick Bateman who works as an ice cream man and computer repairman.
Of course, the killer also has dark family secrets, a bank of encrypted computers in his basement, and the need to kill again. What follows is a fast-paced cat-and-mouse game between Hodges, the motley group of unlikely heroes that he assembles, and the Mercedes Killer. The retired detective and his allies race against time to figure out the culprit’s next target before a larger tragedy can occur.
“Mr. Mercedes” churns along at high speed, which is fitting for a novel of this type — the book is divided into short, action-packed chapters that alternate between the heroes and the villain, so that the reader is never entirely sure what’s coming next.
It is this bouncing between narratives, however, that ultimately makes “Mr. Mercedes” such a frustrating effort. If the novel had focused only on Hodges, it could have been a race-against-time thriller full of surprises for fans of that genre.
On the other hand, if Mr. King had chosen to focus on the Mercedes Killer, the novel could have been a meditation on the banality of evil. By combining both, he robs each storyline of its impact and ends up undercutting any sense of urgency the reader might feel.
Ultimately, “Mr. Mercedes” is quite a departure from Mr. King’s successful supernatural works, and while this attempt at a pulse-pounding thriller is entertaining enough on the first read, there just isn’t enough substance to merit closer inspection.
For instance, how many times can a protagonist conveniently “figure out” a computer password? What are the odds that the 60-something white retired cop at the center of the story is best friends with a 17-year-old African-American computer whiz?
Mr. King’s writing moves at such breakneck speed that a cynical reader may suspect that the various lucky breaks the heroes receive would seem even lazier if the reader was allowed to dwell on them.
“Mr. Mercedes” also suffers from being released in such close proximity to the tragedy in Santa Barbara, because Mr. King’s young white male murderer hates women and minorities and seeks to punish the innocents around him for perceived wrongs.
It’s a troubling reminder that the psychopathic young man who turns to murder is a time-worn trope that always comes hand-in-hand with explanations of overbearing mothers, abusive fathers and rejection.
Yet, when real life reminds us that there are not always lines that can be drawn between reasons and experiences that lead us to understand “why” satisfactorily, entertainment like “Mr. Mercedes” feels tainted and uncomfortable. The shadow of real world bogeymen looms large over every scene with the killer and ensures that after the last page is finished, the reader will remain touched by that shadow as well.
Wendeline O. Wright is a freelance writer and editor (firstname.lastname@example.org).